Friday, May 3, 2013

Working with Horses...and Mules

We were traveling US Route 61 this week to Oak Hill to pick up some things we'd bought. A glance at a field along the road made us slow down and stare. A man was plowing a field with a team that looked like a team of horses.

"Turn around!" I said.

"We're running late. We don't have time to turn around," Larry, the sensible one, replied. He was right. We had a full day ahead of us and couldn't spare even a few minutes. I sighed and settled back in my seat.

"Did you see that, though? He was plowing with horses! I can't remember when I last saw someone doing that. I think it was in the late 70's, when Dan Simons was plowing his tobacco field. We used to use our pony Goldberry to cultivate, remember? She was a good little worker." I tried to look back down the road but the field and its occupants were already out of sight.

 Four days later we were driving back to Oak Hill. And there in the field was the man and his team, getting ready to work. This time Larry started looking for a place to turn around before I asked.

"Those aren't horses, they're mules," he said.

"Really? I thought they were horses." We drove back to the little road that led to the field, parked the truck and I got out, camera in hand.

You never know how someone will receive a visit from strangers, especially strangers who are already trespassing. But the man in bib overalls waved and walked over to meet us. Whew.

This was Gary Philpott, a retired miner and heavy equipment operator, who was using his white mare and his mule to disc the field he had plowed the first day we saw him. Born in Ansted and raised in the little community of Deepwater on the banks of the Great Kanawha River, Gary remembered working with horses as a boy on his father's farm, and always wanted his own team. He fulfilled that dream in 2000, buying his first team of draft horses, and then, piece by piece, the equipment he needed to work them.

"I had a matched team, that white mare and her companion, but he got sick and even though I took him over to Virginia to the equine center there, it was no good. I hated to lose that horse. The mule does a pretty good job but I hope one day to find another horse." So Larry and I were both right, and both wrong about the team! There was one of each.

Gary's work took him to several places in West Virginia, including, surprisingly, to my county of Jackson where he worked on building the watershed lake on Gay Road--the one in my post just two days ago. He's also visited Riverbend Antique Mall, where we have one of our booths, and I think if we'd talked a little longer we'd have discovered someone we knew in common; that's just how it works in West Virginia.

 Gary said he had a friend who was from Jackson county and this friend had a horse-drawn plow as a yard decoration. Some years after his friend passed away Gary happened to talk to the widow.

"By the way, whatever happened to that old plow you had out in your yard?" he asked.

"That old thing? We tossed it over the hill. Why would you want that?" the widow asked.

"I want to use it," Gary told her.

"USE it? Whatever for?" she asked, astonished. Gary retrieved the plow and is in the process of restoring it. (So if you happen to have some old piece of horse-drawn equipment you don't want, he might be just the man to call.)

I asked Gary if he minded me taking some pictures for my blog, and he said not at all. "As a matter of fact, there were some people who stopped the other day and took some, and later my neighbor called to tell me I was on the internet. He'd seen the pictures posted on Facebook!"

It was such a pleasure to meet Gary and see his team in action. I am glad to know that someone still remembers the old way and enjoys keeping the craft alive. We watched and listened to the soft "Gee" and "Haw" and "Step up," surrounded by the green hills and the trickling creek beside the field. Then we were on our way, waving to Gary as he rounded the field.

I hope our paths cross again, and that we will be able to see that field green with the oats he planned to plant.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Jenny said...

I love this story.

I have neighbors who still work & enjoy their horses like this. We moved here 23 yrs ago & I remember how surprised I was to see so many horses on the roads around my house. Most of my neighbors are from one family that have owned the land here for over 100 yrs. The family has multiplied, with each generation building homes around the previous one, until they're all around me. They all own ranches, raising cattle & horses & they ride their horses, buggies, covered wagons, ect (& 4 wheelers) to each others' ranches all the time. There are a lot of practise pens for everyone to get ready for all the rodeos around here too. It's been fun to be a WV transplant rerooted into the west.

-I also love how one story always leads to another one!

Wayfarin' Stranger said...

I saw a man working a 3-horse team at an Amish community in Kentucky a couple of years ago. Mostly we see them working at "Heritage Day" festivals at parks in the area. But back in the 40s and 50s my Dad worked a team of Belgians regularly; he didn't own a tractor. Jim

Granny Sue said...

Jenny, what a great neighborhood to live in. Our neighbors have horses too, riding horses, although there was a man who had a team down the road. I don't think he ever got them broke to work. There is something that just seems right about farm work done with a team. our little Goldberry was a great worker, although we had to put a sort of muzzle made of chicken wire over her mouth or she'd nip at the corn and sorghum as she passed by! She was a funny little thing.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

That is quite interesting - loved the photos.

Sue said...

I'm so glad he let you share the photos. It's a beautiful scene, and I'm happy I got to "see" it.


rsturg said...

Gpa Simons (Dan) used to hook the horses up to a shed and we went for rides in the snow and he hauled hay and we hauled wood too. What great memories!

Granny Sue said...

I wish I had seen that, rsturg. I bet it was fun.

Granny Sue said...

Jim, I often regret not being raised in the country. I'm sure I'd have felt more at home on a farm than in town, even though our street was full of people who raised gardens, canned, and kept chickens. It was a good place to grow up but not quite like living on a farm with horses, cows and barns. I also wish I'd had accessible grandparents. It's one big hole in my childhood; since mine lived in Louisiana and England we saw them seldom and they did not play a significant role in my growing up years. Those who had their grandparents nearby were truly blessed.

Nance said...

I love this post too. My dad farmed with horses in the 30s and 40s and reluctantly turned to the tractor when he saw how fast the neighbors' crops went in. And out. But he always missed his horses.

Gwenda said...

I grew up with mules. Barney and Tobe. Tobe belonged to my father, Barney to his father but they were a team. Tobe was huge and temperamental but loving. He and my father were best friends for 26 years. they were a team too. I have a few Barney and Tobe stories and would love to tell this one or fashion it to fit my Barney and Tobe stories. I can I get permission?
Gwenda Johnson

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